The Africa File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa and related security and political dynamics.
Africa File: Al Shabaab member charged with plotting 9/11-style attack
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A Kenyan member of al Shabaab, al Qaeda’s East African affiliate, was charged in New York this week with planning to conduct a 9/11-style attack. This plot is the latest sign of al Shabaab’s determination to conduct external terror attacks. Unfortunately, trends in East Africa favor al Shabaab and will create more opportunities for the group to strengthen in the coming year. US Africa Command will withdraw most of its 700 troops from Somalia by mid-January. This withdrawal comes as a Somali-Kenyan diplomatic crisis and Ethiopia’s domestic crisis threaten to disrupt counter–al Shabaab operations on the eve of Somalia’s consequential elections.
Salafi-jihadi groups are on the offensive elsewhere in Africa. Boko Haram may have collaborated with a criminal group to kidnap and ransom hundreds of Nigerian schoolboys, echoing the group’s famous kidnapping of the Chibok girls in 2014. An Islamic State–linked insurgency in northern Mozambique also marks the Salafi-jihadi movement’s shift toward southern Africa.
In this Africa File:
- Somalia and Kenya. A Kenyan al Shabaab operative was charged with planning a 9/11-style attack in the US. Al Shabaab is positioned to expand its footprint inside Somalia due to infighting between Ethiopia troops, rising Kenyan-Somali tensions, and the withdrawal of US forces.
- Ethiopia. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s forces are consolidating control over the regional capital in Tigray.
- Mozambique. An Islamic State–linked insurgency resisted security forces’ attempted advances in northern Mozambique.
- Lake Chad. Boko Haram may have collaborated with a criminal gang to kidnap and ransom hundreds of schoolboys in northwestern Nigeria.
- Libya. The Libyan National Army may be preparing to resume hostilities to secure its interests and disrupt UN-led negotiations.
- Ethiopia. CTP is publishing updates on the Ethiopia crisis. Sign up to receive the latest updates by email here. Read Jessica Kocan’s latest update here and Emily Estelle’s background on the conflict here.
Figure 1. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Africa: December 2020
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Source: Emily Estelle.
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At a Glance: The Salafi-jihadi threat in Africa
Updated November 10, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic will hasten the reduction of global counterterrorism efforts, which had already been rapidly receding as the US shifted its strategic focus to competition with China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. This reduction will almost certainly include Africa. The US Department of Defense is considering a significant drawdown of US forces engaged in counterterrorism missions on the continent. The ongoing shift away from US engagement in the Middle East and Africa will likely continue after the change in presidential administrations in early 2021.
This drawdown is happening as the Salafi-jihadi movement, including al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates and allies, continues to make gains in Africa, including in areas where previous counterterrorism efforts had significantly reduced Salafi-jihadi groups’ capabilities. The movement was already positioned to take advantage of the expected general reduction in counterterrorism pressure before the pandemic hit. Now, an increasingly likely wave of instability and government legitimacy crises will create more opportunities for Salafi-jihadi groups to establish new support zones, consolidate old ones, increase attack capabilities, and expand to new areas of operations.
The Salafi-jihadi movement is on the offensive in Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali, where al Qaeda–linked militants are insinuating themselves into local governance while the Malian government is preoccupied with the aftermath of a coup. An Islamic State–linked insurgency has also developed rapidly in northern Mozambique and is spilling over into Tanzania. Ethiopia’s civil war, ignited in November 2020, will lift pressure from al Shabaab in Somalia and will likely create new opportunities for the Salafi-jihadi movement, particularly if the Ethiopian crisis becomes a prolonged regional conflict. Salafi-jihadi insurgencies are also stalemated in Nigeria and persisting amid the war in Libya. Current conditions—including mass anti-government protests in Nigeria and a fragile cease-fire in Libya—will likely evolve in the Salafi-jihadi movement’s favor in the coming year.
Counterterrorism efforts in Somalia and Mali rest on the continued efforts of international coalitions, support for which is eroding in both host and troop-contributing countries and on local partners that have demonstrated their inability to govern effectively or establish legitimacy in their people’s eyes. Mali’s coup and its aftermath will also disrupt international and regional counterterrorism efforts and coordination. Libya’s civil war, which has been subsumed by overlapping regional conflicts, will likely remain a simmering conflict that will fuel the conditions of a Salafi-jihadi comeback.
Amid these conditions, US Africa Command is shifting its prioritization from the counterterrorism mission to great-power competition, a move that coincides with efforts to reduce risk after a 2017 attack killed four servicemen in Niger. US and European powers aim to turn over counterterrorism responsibilities to regional forces of limited effectiveness—such as the G5 Sahel, which is plagued by funding issues, and the African Union Mission in Somalia, which is beginning a scheduled drawdown. The withdrawal of most US troops from Somalia by January 2021 will hasten the lifting of pressure from al Shabaab.
The Salafi-jihadi movement has several main centers of activity in Africa: Mali and its environs, the Lake Chad Basin, the Horn of Africa, Libya, and now, northern Mozambique. These epicenters are networked, allowing recruits, funding, and expertise to flow among them. The rise of the Salafi-jihadi movement in these and any other places is tied to the circumstances of Sunni Muslim populations. The movement takes root when Salafi-jihadi groups can forge ties to vulnerable populations facing existential crises such as civil war, communal violence, or state neglect or abuse (all now likely to be exacerbated by the pandemic). Local crises are incubators for the Salafi-jihadi movement and can become the basis for future attacks against the US and its allies.
Somalia and Kenya
An al Shabaab pilot trained to conduct a 9/11-style attack. A New York City court indicted Kenyan al Shabaab operative Cholo Abdi Abdullah on December 16. Abdullah was arrested in 2019 in the Philippines, where he completed testing for a piloting license. He intended to hijack a commercial plane and crash it into a building in a US city. Another al Shabaab operative was apprehended while taking flying lessons in an African country in the past two years.
This plot is part of an uptick in al Shabaab activities targeting US interests. Al Shabaab attacked US forces in Kenya for the first time in January 2020, killing three Americans. The US is currently drawing down its military footprint in Somalia under orders from the Donald Trump administration to withdraw most of the 700 US troops in the country by mid-January.
Al Shabaab may exploit infighting among Ethiopian forces in Somalia to raid military bases for equipment and expand its area of operations. The ongoing conflict in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region has weakened Ethiopian troops supporting anti–al Shabaab efforts in Somalia. Some Ethiopian forces withdrew from southwestern Somalia’s Gedo region in mid-November to support federal forces fighting in Tigray. Al Shabaab subsequently *attacked an Ethiopian military base in the Gedo region’s Burdubo district on December 10, *claiming to kill six Ethiopian soldiers. Al Shabaab has regularly attacked Ethiopian military bases in the Gedo region over the last three months.
Ethiopia’s conflict has also led to infighting among Ethiopian troops in central Somalia, giving al Shabaab an opportunity to exploit weakened forces and raid an Ethiopian military base. Ethiopian troops attempted to disarm their ethnic Tigray counterparts at a military base in Hiraan region’s Halgan area on December 6. The clash killed 21 ethnic Tigray soldiers and wounded 20 others of various ethnicities. Al Shabaab reportedly *attacked the forces following the dispute, possibly to acquire weapons from the base.
Forecast: Al Shabaab will increase its territorial reach and rate of attacks in the coming weeks in central Somalia’s Hiraan region if Ethiopian forces continue to weaken. Al Shabaab previously capitalized on Ethiopian troop withdrawals from central Somalia in 2016. (As of December 17, 2020)
Deteriorating relations between Somalia and Kenya may reignite fighting between security forces in southwestern Somalia’s Jubbaland state. Current tensions between Somalia and Kenya center on Somalia’s upcoming national elections. The Somali Federal Government (SFG) Foreign Affairs Ministry dismissed Kenya’s ambassador to Somalia in late November, accusing the ambassador of pressuring Jubbaland state’s leader to renege on an agreement to hold elections.
Kenya also *hosted the leader of self-declared Somaliland on December 14, triggering the SFG to sever diplomatic ties with Kenya on December 15. The SFG Information Minister ordered all Kenyan diplomats to leave Somalia by December 22. The SFG’s strained relations with Kenya may lead to clashes between SFG and Jubbaland state forces, which Kenya backs, in southern Somalia. SFG and Jubbaland forces previously clashed in Jubbaland’s Gedo region after SFG troops deployed to Gedo during disputed regional elections in 2019.
Renewed clashes between the SFG and Kenyan-backed Jubbaland state forces may present al Shabaab with attack opportunities in Jubbaland and possibly Kenya. Al Shabaab exploited tensions between the SFG and Jubbaland leadership in early 2020 after SFG troops *seized two districts in Jubbaland’s Gedo region in early February. Al Shabaab may now seek to advance in Jubbaland and stage attacks in southeastern Kenya. The group *has conducted at least three such attacks this month since Somali-Kenyan tensions escalated, compared to one *failed attack in the region in September.
Ethiopian federal troops are consolidating control of Tigray’s regional capital and targeting regional forces west of the city. Federal forces captured the Tigray regional capital, Mekelle, from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in late November. Federal forces are now targeting TPLF troops and leadership along the major road west of Mekelle.
The Ethiopian federal government is taking control of governance and service provision in Mekelle. International humanitarian aid arrived in Mekelle on December 12 for the first time since fighting in Tigray began. This breakthrough came after the Ethiopian government revisited an agreement with the UN to give humanitarian aid agencies access to government-controlled territory in Tigray. A federally appointed interim administration *took office in Mekelle on December 13.
Read CTP’s Ethiopia Crisis updates here.
Mozambican forces have struggled to sustain gains against the Islamic State–linked insurgency in northern Mozambique. Militants *have continued launching attacks across Cabo Delgado province’s districts, including Nangade and *Palma. Security forces have advanced repeatedly but failed to hold territory. Security forces most recently *reclaimed Quissanga town in Cabo Delgado province from Islamic State–linked militants on December 8, though Islamic State–linked militants *may still occupy the area. Militants reoccupied Muidumbe district in late November after Mozambican forces claimed regaining the territory from the militants in mid-November. Mozambican security forces also *attacked Islamic State–linked militants on December 15 in Awasse, roughly 20 miles from a port that militants have held since mid-August.
A cohort of southern African countries will hold a summit to address Mozambique's security challenge in January 2021.
The Libyan National Army (LNA) may be preparing to resume hostilities to secure its interests and disrupt UN-led negotiations. An LNA-affiliated militia attempted to seize a Government of National Accord (GNA) military base in southwestern Libya on December 6. This attack follows days of LNA military training in northern Libya.
LNA forces also seized a Turkish vessel en route to Misrata in western Libya on December 8. The LNA released the vessel after Turkey’s foreign minister warned of retaliation against those who threatened Turkish interests in Libya. Turkey is the UN-recognized GNA’s main military backer. The LNA may not currently have the capacity to engage with Turkey and likely released the vessel to avoid escalating tensions.
These events indicate that the LNA may be preparing to secure its interests militarily if ongoing UN-led talks threaten its interests. A UN-brokered cease-fire began on October 23.
Foreign forces will have an enduring presence in Libya. The cease-fire requires foreign forces to withdraw, but there are not yet indicators that any foreign forces intend to leave. The Turkish presidency submitted a motion to extend Turkish troop deployment for 18 months. The US Department of Defense confirmed that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is financing the Russian Wagner Group’s presence in Libya. Both Turkey and the UAE are developing an enduring military presence in Libya, and neither is likely to withdraw while the other retains a foothold.
Forecast: Fighting will resume in Libya in the coming three months. Salafi-jihadi groups will resume intermittent attacks should the civil war resume. (Update December 16, 2020)
Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a kidnapping of hundreds of schoolboys conducted by a local criminal group in northwestern Nigeria. Attackers captured hundreds of male students from a school in northwestern Nigeria’s Katsina state on December 11. Officials negotiated the boys’ release on December 17.
Boko Haram may have recruited a local gang or collaborated with one to conduct the kidnapping. Alternately, Boko Haram may have claimed the attack to gain publicity and possibly share the ransom money. Boko Haram’s leader Abubakr Shekau claimed the attack on December 15, stating the group kidnapped students because Western education goes against Islam and claiming to hold more than 500 students. Boko Haram released another video allegedly featuring the kidnapped schoolboys on December 17.
Boko Haram famously attacked a school in Chibok in northeastern Nigeria in 2014, kidnapping over 200 students. The group enslaved the girls and killed boys or enlisted them as Boko Haram soldiers in the 2014 attack. Boko Haram gained publicity from the Chibok attack at a time when the group was strengthening and expanding its territorial control. The December 2020 attack in Katsina differed from Chibok because the attackers did not kill any male students
If Boko Haram collaborated with a group in Katsina, the kidnapping indicates an indirect expansion of the group’s influence into northwestern Nigeria. Boko Haram has also recently escalated attacks on civilians in its usual area of operations in Borno state, including a large massacre of farmers in late November.
The Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWA) is expanding its area of operations around Lake Chad. ISWA militants attacked Chadian military boats on the western edge of Lake Chad on December 1, killing 30 soldiers. ISWA has conducted three waterborne attacks on Chadian soldiers since November. The group previously released media about attacks on Chadian forces that highlighted its crossing of the “artificial border” between Nigeria and Chad.
ISWA militants also killed 27 civilians on the day of parliamentary elections in southeastern Niger on December 13 after *swimming to the shore. Boko Haram also claimed this attack, but ISWA more often operates in this area and is likely responsible.
ISWA is targeting aid workers to gain access to resources and establish control of local populations. ISWA has been attacking aid workers throughout 2020 by setting up fake checkpoints in northeastern Nigeria. ISWA militants used a fake checkpoint on the road linking Borno state’s capital Maiduguri and Mainok village to abduct two Red Cross staff members on December 9. The Islamic State designated humanitarian agencies as legitimate targets a few weeks after militants from ISWA’s Sahel branch captured and executed six French aid workers in August. Aid workers tend to be unarmed and assist in transporting supplies to disadvantaged villages. Attacks on aid workers may be intended to gain resources and fit a trend toward brutal propaganda from Islamic State affiliates in West Africa.
Forecast: ISWA will expand beyond its traditional area of operations and become increasingly active in northwestern Nigeria and along Lake Chad shorelines. Its main base of control will remain in Borno state, however. Boko Haram will continue large-scale attacks in northwestern Nigeria and will draw resources from ransoming kidnapped students. (Updated December 16, 2020)
 “ISWAP Claims Killing 30 in Attack on Chadian Military Boats, 11 Nigerian Troops in Two Incidents in Borno,” SITE Intelligence Group, December 8, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.